The Songwriters – Bob Dylan

For a songwriter as idiosyncratic and downright awkward as Bob Dylan to have so many of his songs covered by such a variety of other artists is something of a mystery. He sings them himself in one of a variety of voices, appears to make no attempt at commercialism and yet others listen to them and hear hits.

The first to do this was Joan Baez, who was very close to him in his early days when it was just guitar and vocals and he wanted to emulate his gritty, no-frills heroes such as Woody Guthrie.

Baez did an album’s worth of Dylan covers, from Farewell Angelina and It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue to Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, and she didn’t do anything revolutionary with the songs – she just sang them in her pure, guileless voice and somehow something came out that wasn’t immediately apparent in the originals.

The Byrds took a different approach, though, giving them a full folk-rock treatment complete with Roger McGuinn’s jangly 12-string  Rickenbacker guitar. The result was like putting milk on cornflakes.

Mr Tambourine Man changed from folk club staple to worldwide chart resident, but without selling out in any way (although the purists who didn’t like Dylan himself going electric probably wouldn’t have agreed). All I Really Want To Do and My Back Pages followed the same formula, giving the material a bit of melodiousness, a bit of juice. Suddenly those of us who had found him a bit dry and forbidding had those great lyrics and those hidden  tunes opened up by the band sound and the vocal harmonies.

The international hits flooded out under various banners, with British beat boomers Manfred Mann particularly partial to a bit of Bob and able to translate his heavily disguised likeability into chart hits.  If You Gotta Go and Mighty Quinn took Dylan into those little boxes of seven-inch singles where he had probably never imagined himself and elsewhere in England Fairport Convention, who had yet to embark on the traditional British folk material that would be their métier, put three Dylan songs on their Unhalfbricking album, including a French-language version of If You Gotta Go: Si Tu Dois Partir.

Fledgling jazz singer Julie Driscoll, under the musical leadership of Brian Auger and his band The Trinity, hit the jackpot with This Wheel’s On Fire.

Meanwhile back in Dylan’s homeland they were queuing up to record his stuff, with multiple versions of I’ll Keep It With Mine (including one by the high priestess of strange, Nico) and I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight (Maria Muldaur, Emmylou Harris, Ray Stevens and others).

Guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix drove his early girlfriend Fayne Pridgon mad by spending their last few dollars on  a Dylan album and playing it obsessively, interrupting conversations to point out this great line and that brilliant phrase. His version of All Along The Watchtower was such a brilliant treatment of the tune that Dylan himself would play that arrangement live in later years. Hendrix also did a typically sprawling version of Like A Rolling Stone, which I thought was unbeatable until I heard what Californian psychedelic outfit Spirit did with it.

The Band, who at one stage were Dylan’s backing band and with whom he recorded the legendary Basement Tapes, were perfectly positioned to snap up some gems and duly did great versions of Tears of Rage, When I Paint My Masterpiece and others.

Even Neil Young, a fellow long-term American musical hero, and not exactly short of great material, has done loads of Dylan in his live electric sets, cranked up and feeding back as ever and treating the songs as if they were his own.

As he got a bit older and perhaps less crabby, Dylan gave us some tuneful songs such as one on Blood On The Tracks, You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, which Madeleine Peyroux rubbed some massage oil into thus:

And to round off what is admittedly a tiny selection of what is available, one of the highlights of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass album is  Dylan’s If Not for You. Olivia Newton-John did it too, but never mind.

Got your own favourite? Let me know.

Forever Young? I know, I know, it’s just not one of my favourites.

 

 

 

The wisdom of pop songs – God, I love you

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
greenbaum
Smuggling his faith into the charts – Norman Greenbaum

When we talk about ‘religious music’, most of us western pop music lovers mean Christian music because, like it or not, Christianity is still the leading religion in the UK and Europe, USA, Australia and other countries. I don’t know if there has ever been a top 40 single on an Islamic or Hindu theme, although we did have a few Indian-flavoured songs in the late 1960s and early 70s.

While religion has never been as unpopular as it is now, since the dawn of rock’n’roll it has been considered uncool, and songs with a religious bent almost had to be smuggled into the charts. Why, though? If somebody sings about killing someone and we buy the record, that doesn’t mean we agree with murder. Pop history is littered with songs about cheating lovers, and if we like the tune, that doesn’t mean we condone what they’re doing. Religious content doesn’t have to be construed as ‘a message’.

When George Harrison had the masses singing My Sweet Lord in 1970, they weren’t thinking about the lyrics, and the Indian influence made it unclear who exactly this lord was anyway.

Interestingly, when the writers of the old Chiffons song, He’s So Fine, got their lawyers on the case because Harrison’s song seemed to be a straight rip-off of theirs, he said he had actually been influenced mainly by the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ 1967 hit Oh Happy Day, which had non-believing hippies singing about ‘when Jesus washed our sins away’.

Meanwhile, Billy Preston had put his burgeoning credibility right on the line with That’s The Way God Planned it, a Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton-fuelled workout that doesn’t mince its words.

Round about the same time Norman Greenbaum rose briefly from obscurity to bring us Spirit in the Sky, which would later be covered in the UK by Doctor and the Medics (1986). On a personal note, a couple of years ago I had a regular acoustic gig in a beach bar on a small Caribbean island, and when I threw in Spirit in the Sky late one night it was amusing and sort of thrilling to see some defiantly dismissive friends in the audience singing along and dancing to it.

george
“Yeah, I nicked it – but not from where you think.” George Harrison comes clean

Bob Dylan may have lost a bit of credibility and a few fans when he ‘got religion’ in the late 70s, but he eased up on it after Slow Train Coming and Saved.

And why not? A Christian motor mechanic doesn’t have to preach to his customers, although he may try to be a good ambassador for God through the way he conducts his business. And, I hear the scathing multitudes grumble, he may not.

A little beacon of the 1990s was Joan Osborne’s One of Us, written by Eric Bazilian of The Hooters, which had music fans’ heads swimming with “Yeah, yeah, God is great, and yeah, yeah, God is good”.

Considering all the thousands of songs that have floated through the charts since the 1950s, this (admittedly incomplete) list may be a meagre one, and none of these recordings may have resulted in mass conversions, but they do exist, they were hits and we all know them.

And you’ve got the Reverend Al Green, who, in addition to having what is generally regarded as the sweetest soul voice in the world, is an actual ordained (i.e. official) minister. Many of the old soul stars, from Aretha Franklin to Whitney Houston, honed their vocal skills singing in church in their youth, and although Steve Winwood of the Spencer Davis Group and Traffic grew up in Birmingham, England, rather than attending a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, he has been known to step in for the organist at his local church in Gloucestershire as well as singing in the choir.

osborn
What if God was on the cover of the Rolling Stone?

All of the above are what might be termed ‘mainstream’ acts, but what of those Christian musicians who write and play nothing but religious songs? There are stars among them: names like Matt Redman and Chris Tomlin are known in every Church of England music group, their contemporary songs competing with the vast collection of hymns from the past. The main difference between Christian songs and secular ones is that the love is directed, not at ‘you baby’ but at ‘the Lord’.

Christian rock bands tend to be of the American-style big ballad persuasion, and because the emphasis is on the lyrics and the star is God rather than the lead guitarist or singer, the genre is unlikely to generate a Led Zeppelin or a Sex Pistols.

darlene
If she hadn’t been a Christian she would have been a star. Don’t deprive yourself of Darlene Zschech

There are, though, some voices that would hold their own with the best of the atheists and agnostics. Take the Australian Darlene Zschech, for instance, one of the top singers of that country’s Hillsong United. Hillsong do a song called Made Me Glad, a powerful, ebbing and flowing piece of praise overlaid by Szech’s vocals, that can make the hairs stand up on your neck.

Could that have made the international charts, given the right promotion? In another, less cynical era, perhaps.

Well, please yourself, but it’s on my iPod, somewhere between Mad World and Maggie May.